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John DeShazier: Obum Gwacham staring at best opportunity of his NFL career

He's battling for a starting spot at right defensive end

Photos from New Orleans Saints Training Camp presented by Verizon at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 01, 2016

White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – Before Obum Gwacham flared on the New Orleans Saints' radar, before New Orleans could claim him off waivers after Seattle released Gwacham following his being a sixth-round draft pick by the Seahawks in 2015, Saints offensive lineman Andrus Peat already had a familiarity with Gwacham.

They played in the Pac-12 Conference for competing schools, Peat at Stanford and Gwacham at Oregon State.

Except then, while Peat was a left tackle from 2012-14 who was working his way into becoming the Saints' first-round draft pick last year, Gwacham mainly was a wide receiver who caught 10 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown from 2011-13.

Gwacham switched positions, to defensive end, as a senior in '14 and now, two years later, again finds himself at odds with Peat, even though they're teammates – this time, as a Saints defensive end, lining up against Peat while Peat fills in at left tackle for Terron Armstead. (Most of the offseason, Peat has been working at right guard, the position at which he's expected to start once Armstead returns.)

"He's a good athlete," Peat said. "He was a receiver before he went to defensive end so he's really athletic, he has long arms, he's pretty strong. He's a talented guy."

And now, Gwacham is staring at the best opportunity of his brief NFL existence.

He's battling for a starting position at right end, along with linebackers Kasim Edebali and Davis Tull.

It's a friendly competition; the three are friends and are more than cordial, offering encouragement and tips to one another. And it's not the end game for Gwacham if he isn't able to claim the starting position, because he's young (25) and will get playing time – he played in nine games last season.

But considering the quick ascent, from one year at defensive end in college to the possibility of starting for an NFL team two years later, it's a dizzying opportunity for Gwacham, who had 2.5 sacks, four tackles and a fumble recovery in nine games last year.

"I think I'm a lot more confident this season," he said. "I definitely feel a lot better. It's nice that I'm able to be here with this team during camp, because I was with a different team last year. It's nice that I can grow with everyone and we can go through those camp days together.

"Honestly, nothing is set in stone. It could be anyone running with the (No. 1 defense) right now, so it's not a time to get comfortable with anything."

There remains too much for Gwacham to learn to get comfortable, though it's not as if he was foreign to the concept of pursuing and tackling. Even when he was a receiver at Oregon State, he played special teams and in his first four years, he posted eight tackles.

"The nice thing was playing so much special teams," he said. "I'd be on punt or kickoff team and you have to think a little differently when you're on those because you're going down to make a tackle. You're going down to take on a block, shed and go make a tackle. So it's essentially almost the same thing."

Still, it took a coach to initiate the transition for the little-used receiver, a transition that isn't often initiated and isn't easily made at that stage of a player's career.

"Definitely unique, but I had a great defensive line coach at Oregon State, Coach Joe Seumalo," Gwacham said. "He saw the vision for me, he saw that I was a hard worker and I'm a quick learner.

"So once that was set in place he knew that I would just take it and run with it. And he knew I had the body to play special teams in the NFL, and so he knew that would be where I would first make my niche and from there, get reps with the defense and see where that would progress."

The progress report reads this way: From 6 feet 5, 215 pounds as a receiver to 260 pounds as a defensive end, a speed rusher who can turn the corner, but who also has to prove he's strong enough to set the edge against the run.

"Beginning with weight and with technique as well, working with (defensive line coach) Bill (Johnson) and with B.Y. (pass rush specialist Brian Young), I definitely think I've come a long way since last year."

Gwacham said he, and his line mates, have been attempting to master the "zero step" technique.

"It's where the D-linemen, they want to focus on jumping off and initiating contact with whatever O-lineman it is, whether it's a tight end or a tackle or guard," he said. "You want to initiate contact with them with force.

"It allows you to push-pull him and it makes it a lot easier to control them. That's one of the biggest things that I've worked on and I've definitely seen it pay off."

If it pays off for Gwacham, it pays off for the Saints, too.

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